President Obama is expected to announce Wednesday the scaling back of U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. The announcement will herald the start to a gradual thinning out of some of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The start of the drawdown signals the beginning of a shift of security burdens to Afghan forces and moves toward a political settlement with at least some insurgent factions.
Although exact troop withdrawal numbers are not yet available, the president has previously said the drawdown will be “significant.”
Whatever that number is, U.S. officials, up to and including the president, have always said the pace and scale of any troop drawdown will be “conditions-based” - according to how active and strong the insurgents are, and how prepared the Afghan government is to resist them on its own. But views of the conditions are highly varied.
In a newspaper interview two weeks ago, General David Petraeus, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan and soon to become CIA director, described the gains as “fragile” and “reversible.” Secretary Gates has cited “substantial progress” but also has warned the gains could be lost by what he calls a “rush to the exits.” He has called for a very modest pullout of support troops, not combat forces.
Former diplomat Matthew Hoh, who served in Afghanistan but resigned over his opposition to the war, contends that conditions in Afghanistan are getting not better, but worse. "We accelerated the war. We’ve basically tripled the amount of troops, tripled the amount of money we’re spending there, we’ve supported two fraudulent or stolen elections, and the insurgency has blossomed in size and it’s spread throughout the country. Where before, a couple of years ago, you could say it was confined roughly to the south and east, now that’s not the case. So we’ve gone from being waste-deep to being chest-deep in quicksand," he said.
Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says President Obama should take the opportunity in the withdrawal announcement to clearly state U.S. objectives in Afghanistan. He says the original simple goals of defeating al-Qaida and keeping the Taliban from power have shifted over 10 years. "But then some of the more ambitious objectives, in terms of the state-building agenda and more development of Afghanistan came along. And I think that that was a nice thing to try to do, but it was never quite clear, that was never stated as the end objective. And so now I think that there’s this urgent need to re-clarify what we’re in Afghanistan for, and then commit resources to promote that objective," he said.
Key to the U.S. plan is to build up Afghan army and police forces so they can take over security duties.
Former Afghan ambassador to the United States Said Jawad says the army is getting much better at its job, but the state of the police is still worrisome. "So actually there are pockets of excellence, their accomplishments are significant, especially with the army. The police will have a long way to go to be where they want to be, both in the term of the number but also more importantly in the term of becoming a professional police force," he said.
Watch more of Gary Thomas' interview with Said Jawad
Part of the problem not just with the police but with the government, says Jawad, is the nagging issue of corruption. He says the government of President Hamid Karzai simply does not see it as the same priority as does the U.S. and its NATO allies.
The view is also starting to take hold that a political solution will be needed to end that conflict, and some very preliminary talks have already begun. Jawad says a power-sharing deal is inevitable, but that the Taliban have no inclination to enter into a deal yet.
"Taliban are fighting for political power. That’s obvious. So any kind of deal will involve bringing them into sharing a certain degree of political power with them. The way the war is going on, although the Taliban are more and more under pressure, especially in the south, but they have more freedom of movement in other parts of the country. They’re not perceived to be losing the war completely. And if they are not losing, they’re not really compelled to talk because the definition of victory for the Taliban is very different than the definition of victory for the United States or the Afghan people," he said.
Andrew Wilder says that for any peace to take hold, a deal needs to include not just the government and Taliban, but also must have the support of the international community. "For that to be durable that also has to be an inclusive process. That can’t just be an agreement between the Taliban and Karzai government, sort of backed maybe by Pakistan and the U.S. It has to look at the interests of other Afghan factions. But in then trying to decide about troop numbers I think it’s important to then relate that to this objective of stability and maybe an inclusive peace process that the military is then there to support and promote," he said.
Secretary Gates said Sunday that whatever the president’s decision, he expects that a “significant number” of troops will remain in Afghanistan.